Airline says Taiwan plane hit wheel on runway

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The Independent Online

Click here for map The Boeing 747 which crashed during a severe storm in Taiwan on Tuesday night struck an obstruction on the runway, and was not brought down by bad weather, Singapore Airlines said yesterday.

Click here for map The Boeing 747 which crashed during a severe storm in Taiwan on Tuesday night struck an obstruction on the runway, and was not brought down by bad weather, Singapore Airlines said yesterday.

Seventy nine of the 178 people on board were confirmed yesterday to have died in the crash, which occurred during take-off at Chiang Kai-shek airport near Taipei. As emergency teams retrieved the plane's flight data recorders, the airline insisted its pilot had been right to take off, despite the 60mph winds which were sweeping over the airport in advance of an oncoming typhoon.

Taiwanese accident investigators said they were studying the possibility that the plane had struck a loose wheel from a vehicle, or a pair of mechanical diggers which stood close to the runway and which were visibly damaged yesterday.

According to Rick Clements, a spokesman for Singapore Airlines, the plane's Malaysian pilot, Captain CK Foong, "saw an object on the runway and he tried to take off to avoid the object, and he hit the object". He pointed out that despite the high winds, other flights had taken off safely before SQ 006, and wind speed and visibility levels did not exceed limits. "He wouldn't be allowed to take off if the weather conditions were very bad," said Mr Clements.

Parts of the wrecked plane were found on the wrong runway, although the airline denied that this was because of pilot error and insisted that the pieces of debris had scattered there during the crash, which split the plane into several pieces. Captain Foong who, with his two co-pilots, walked away from the crash unharmed, has 11,235 hours of flying time and recent experience of landing and taking off at Chiang Kai-shek. The plane, which was less than four years old, had been serviced just two weeks earlier.

"Weather conditions at the airport in Taipei at the time of accident were within safe operational limits. An aircraft from another airline departed 15 minutes earlier than SQ006," Mr Clements said. "Weather conditions had not changed since then."

The airline's account appears to be corroborated by the testimony of some of the 99 survivors of the crash, several of whom spoke of a loud noise just as the plane was lifting off the runway and immediately before the fuselage split open. "We start taxi-ing to take off," said Paul Blanchon, one of four British passengers on the flight, two of whom are believed to have died. "We start to shake, as normal when you start to take off, and then - just as the front end lifts - there's this bang. All the lights go out and a split second later, pieces of the aircraft start coming apart. It's pitch black. I was thinking, 'I'm going to die'."

DNA experts have been brought in to help identify the bodies, many of which were completely incinerated.

Special flights were chartered to take relatives to the site of the disaster, some of whom had gathered at Singapore's Changi Airport throughout the night as news of the crash began to spread. Even as families were being informed of the fate of their loved ones Singapore Airlines said that they would each receive an immediate payment of US$25,000 (£17,000) with further payments possible in the future.

Michael Fam, the airline's chairman said: "The entire company and I are deeply shocked and saddened by this tragic accident. It is the first involving fatalities inSIA's history. The company's reputation is intact as far as I am concerned. It was an unfortunate accident. I don't think that it should affect the confidence of our passengers, nor should it affect the confidence of our shareholders."

But if the subsequent investigation does indeed clear the airline and its pilot, it will damage the reputation of the Taiwanese airport authorities who stand accused of not keeping their runway free of obstructions. A final verdict will not be delivered until months of investigation have been completed, but it could damage recent Taiwanese efforts to to change the image of the island from one of industry to tourism.

Typhoon Xangsane, which had already caused 26 deaths in the Philippines, killed at least four people in Taiwan yesterday in high winds and landslides.